Books: Digging a tunnel

Talia Carner ’s fourth novel explores themes of feminism and Judaism in bleak postcommunist Russia.

A Russian woman gestures during a pro-communist demonstration in Moscow in 1993. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Russian woman gestures during a pro-communist demonstration in Moscow in 1993.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As Hotel Moscow, the fourth novel by Talia Carner (the former publisher of Savvy Women magazine), opens, Brooke Fielding, a 38-year-old New York investment manager who has abandoned her Diaspora name (Bertha Feldman) and distanced herself from her parents’ Holocaust experiences, has agreed to spend the first week of October 1993 in Moscow, teaching entrepreneurial skills to Russian businesswomen.
From the moment she arrives, Brooke is swept up in the corruption and violence associated with the “privatization orgy” of the post-communist Russian Federation.
And she finds that a secret from her past may have put her – and the women she is trying to help – at risk.
Action-packed, steamy and suspenseful, Hotel Moscow is a potboiler. Many of the novel’s plot devices are implausible.
And the narrator cannot resist telling readers what they already know, often in melodramatic prose. What did Brooke have to gain? Carner asks. “Saving the cooperatives and the livelihood of the women who trusted her. What did she have to lose? Everything, including her life.” As president Boris Yeltsin suppresses an uprising of the Russian parliament, while Brooke is on the street, with cannons exploding and machine guns firing nearby, Carner writes that her “heartbeat thumped loudly in her ears.” When a Russian soldier accosts Brooke, we are not surprised to learn that “dread spread down to [her] toes.”
The characters in Hotel Moscow do not converse; they declaim.
“These past twenty-four hours have been intense,” Brooke tells Judd Kornblum, who is clearly attracted to her, “but being away from one’s natural habitat distorts things, plays tricks with one’s perspective.”
“We’ve gotten a gut feeling about each other,” he replies. “We’ve experienced some unpleasant events and some highs.”
And Dr. Olga Rozanova, a Russian academic, tells Brooke that her countrymen stored up hatred against Jews for centuries.
“Our priests gave us permission to rob them, to ridicule them, to beat them, to kill them – all under the premise of vindicating their killing our Jesus…. Shamelessly we were the oppressors and the persecutors of the Jews in our midst…. It’s our collective guilt – and it should be our collective shame – except that it is not.”
Despite its aesthetic and literary deficiencies, Hotel Moscow does forcefully convey Carner’s bleak assessment of life for Russian citizens, especially women, under the post-communist regime.
Would-be entrepreneurs, Carner reports, had virtually no understanding of business practices in a free market economy; they were easy prey for extortion by government officials and the Russian mafia.
Women lost their safety net of social services, and, according to Carner, Yeltsin issued a directive giving all available jobs to men. Before perestroika, women who were beaten by their angry, drunken husbands could get some redress from supervisors at the factory or local party officials. “Now,” Olga says, “We Russian women often must dig a tunnel with nothing but a spoon.”
Carner claims as well that the scourge of anti-Semitism, encouraged by the czars and the communists, remained very much in place in Russia in the 1990s.
And a second theme of Hotel Moscow involves Brooke coming to a new appreciation of Judaism in this setting. In New York, Brooke avoided Yom Kippur services because she found them “filled with so much fawning, self-flagellation and fear of God’s fiery wrath,” and devoid of uplifting spirituality. Nor did she trust, let alone love, a God who had done what he had done to his people – and to her parents. Helping people in despair and distress – and not “Holocaust mishegas” – defined her Judaism.
In Russia, where her mother was born and Christian hearts are hard, Brooke realizes that “she had never given much thought to how being a Jew defined her.
Now she was certain she wouldn’t have wanted to be anything else.”
Although Brooke wants Judaism to be her choice, not a designation dictated by the prejudiced views of others, she admits anti-Semitism brought to the surface her pride in her religious identity. Loving her DNA, she acknowledges that she has always wanted to play a role “in perpetuating our tribe.”
Brooke Fielding comes home a more whole – and more wholesome – person.
She has won a battle or two in Russia, but she leaves a country that is run by bureaucrats, oligarchs and the mafia.
Even if the big, bad villain of Hotel Moscow does jail time, Carner emphasizes, he has “accumulated more dollars, deutschmarks, and yen than he knows what do with.” When he gets out, his cronies, inside and outside of government, will still be around, and “with so many power axes crossing,” the outlook for a legitimate version of capitalism – and of democracy – in Russia is bleak.
No wonder Brooke’s friend decides to hold all telephone calls until they clear passport control and customs because he does not “relish the idea of missing our flight.”
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.